I was quite pleased last week when the Vice Provost for Student Affairs addressed students via email about the re-introduction of Cardinal Conversations. On a campus where academics, networking, and extracurricular pursuits occupy the minds of a vast majority of our student body, the Conversations represent a critical opportunity for students to grapple with difficult questions about our political climate, philosophy, and human nature.
The Stanford campus needs the discourse created by these Conversations. Like the country as a whole, Stanford is less divided along racial, gender, and religious lines yet far more politically tribal than in decades past. The Conversations provide a space for respectful discussion around the important issues of our time. The program is not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end: a conversation starter, a call for more civil discussion and debate between those who disagree most.
My primary piece of advice to the administration is simple yet essential: those who are invited to speak as part of the Conversations must be provocative, and they must make us uncomfortable. This does not mean, of course, that speakers whose primary (or only) goal is provocation ought to be invited; people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Robert Spencer add no value to a campus like ours, and I would strongly oppose an invitation extended to them or those who employ their tactics. Instead, I advocate for speakers who will challenge us at our core and create opportunities for sincere personal reflection. I want people who offer provocative takes on their values and biases, people who force us to reconsider our worldviews. In short, I want speakers who make us deeply uncomfortable, not simply for the sake of it, but because it is when we are most uncomfortable that we can pursue the most productive dialogue with those around us. I believe there is little point in bringing back the Conversations unless the administration commits to inviting diverse intellectuals with rich experience who can help usher in these sorts of uncomfortable discussions.
This view is certainly not a popular one held here at Stanford. We hear almost daily in our dorms and in our classrooms that students must feel safe. I wholeheartedly agree: students and parents alike both trust and demand that the University keep us safe while we study here. But we should not confuse threats to our physical safety with intellectual discomfort. The former is intolerable. The latter is absolutely necessary; any university that fails to challenge its students’ comfort and allows them to spend four years without encountering radical ideas that aggressively challenge their preconceived notions has failed miserably at preparing students for life outside the bubble.
To that end, I believe the administration has selected faculty who bring a tremendous amount of intellectual diversity and life experience. Thomas Gilligan of the Hoover Institution, Deborah Rhode of the Law School, and Claude Steele of the Psychology Department offer a rich diversity of perspectives, and I am confident that they will select speakers who fit the mold I would like to see.
Still, I encourage the University to reconsider the role that students will play in the speaker selection process. Though student voices are valuable and ought to be considered, we lack the breadth of experience required to select those speakers who will add the most value to campus discourse. I propose that the University assemble a committee by application of diverse students around our campus; these students should suggest — rather than select — speakers and gauge the cogency and dissemination among students of each speaker’s presentation, so that faculty may calibrate future Conversations.
I look forward to the re-introduction of Cardinal Conversations. The lack of engagement between those of differing political philosophies on campus is not healthy or productive, and we desperately need something to bridge this divide. I believe that a robust Cardinal Conversations represents such an avenue, and I am excited for the University to bring thoughtful, provocative speakers to Stanford in the years ahead.